U.S. Military’s Health Sciences University Looks to Expand its Campus and Reach with HKS’ Support

For decades, the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS) has trained doctors, nurses, and public health professionals on how to provide critical support to the U.S. Armed Forces.

Now, the 1970s-built university in Bethesda, Maryland is looking to build on its legacy and adapt to the constantly evolving world of military health care. The university has tapped HKS to design a new 450,000 square-feet research facility that will adapt to advancements in research and education to equip students for a career serving those who serve our country.

HKS took on the university’s expansion project as part of an indefinite quantity contract between the firm and the U.S. Navy for various design projects. Brent Willson, HKS’ federal health director, said this project is unique from other government projects he’s been part of in the last 35 years because it merges military and health care practices in an educational setting.

USUHS is located just three miles from Washington, D.C. on the country’s health sciences research hub, counting the National Institutes of Health and Walter Reed Army National Military Medical Center among its neighbors. An expansion project would give students and professors new spaces and opportunities to collaborate with the nation’s most prominent scientists.

Knowing this, the HKS design team didn’t just want to design a new building for the university – they wanted to design a backdrop for something more.

“USUHS trains the doctors and nurses who go to war alongside our war-fighters by showing them how to provide the best health care possible, given the circumstances they are in,” Willson said. “With this project, we want to bring value to our country and to those who give up so much to protect us.”

Designing a university extension on an urban site with limited space was a tall order, but HKS was up for the challenge. The firm worked with joint venture partner WSP USA and pooled its own interior and exterior designers, educational experts, and medical planners to design a building that will architecturally celebrate how ideas take flight and develop in the military.

“With this project, we want to bring value to our country and to those who give up so much to protect us.”

Designing for the Future

The design team was inspired by the university’s research, specifically that related to the brain,  to propose a building exterior that symbolizes its past successes and future potential. The building’s exterior was split into two halves to symbolize the left and right sides of the brain that each support logic and creativity. One half features the existing campus’ brick work, while the other has a glass exterior to represent the university’s future.

A new plaza connecting the current building and the new addition feature a large chevron pattern with alternating brick and concrete pavers that allude to stripes used by the military to denote rank.

The interior will take inspiration from the body’s neurological functions to emphasize flexibility, creativity, and connectivity in the new spaces. Private offices and open work areas will represent the soma, which contains the cell body. Corridors and circulation will form the axon, which conducts electrical impulses away from the cell body. Support spaces, labs and research areas will represent dendrites, form and process information to be shared with others. Living rooms and “bump spaces,” living room-type environments for casual connections, will represent synapses where special electrical or chemical reactions occur.

Lab spaces will be able to adapt to different types of research projects, carefully placed “bumping spaces” will encourage casual gatherings among students and faculty, and convertible classrooms will accommodate different class sizes. Pulling from HKS research on effective workspaces, designers will optimize the student and researcher experience by adding natural lighting to lab spaces and placing administrative offices closer to the labs they serve instead of being several buildings or stories away.

Willson hopes that the project will eventually attract talented and inspired medical students to the campus so that they will one day offer high-quality care to those in military service.

“Like any elite research university, the school is in competition with the rest of the America to recruit top students and faculty,” Willson said. “We want their addition to be a forward-thinking, cutting-edge, and flexibly-designed building to attract top talent and retain that talent.”